Tragedy Hits Ski World Again

Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph (left) and FWT Head Judge Jim Jack Killed in Avalanche

Chris Rudolph, Captain Powder, Jim Jack

Chris Rudolph and Jim Jack celebrate with Captain Powder in Sun Valley last December.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

STEVENS PASS, WASH. An avalanche in the backcountry just outside of Stevens Pass resort near Leavenworth, Washington claimed the lives of three skiers Sunday afternoon. Head judge for the Freeskiing World Tour Jim Jack, 46, Stevens Pass marketing director Chris Rudolph, 30, and Johnny Brenan, 41, a Leavenworth contractor and married father of two daughters, died when they were swept away by a large avalanche in the Tunnel Creek drainage, just a short hike from the resort boundary.

The three were among 15 skiers who left the resort together a little before noon. Three of the skiers split off into their own group, leaving 12 directly involved in the accident, including Powder Senior Editor John Stifter and photographer Keith Carlsen. Stifter says Rudolph, Brenan, professional skier Elyse Saugstad and three other skiers successfully descended the upper bowl and moved into what they felt was a safe area in the trees.

Jim Jack was the seventh skier to drop in, and triggered a large slab avalanche, Stifter says. According to those watching from above, the fracture started about 30 feet wide and propagated across the slope, leaving a crown two to three feet deep. The slide captured Rudolph, Brenan and Saugstad, as well as a fourth skier who escaped by grabbing a tree. Saugstad deployed an airbag, and was only partially buried with her hands and head free within 50 feet of where Rudolph and Brenan were buried.

Three of the five skiers left on top conducted a beacon search while the remaining two watched from above in case of secondary releases. They were able to locate Rudolph under several feet of snow, but after freeing him from the snow, Stifter attempted CPR for approximately 30 minutes, but was unsuccessful in resuscitating him. Jack was carried several hundred feet farther down the slope, and according to reports, was recovered by the group that had split off from the original pack.

Stevens Pass reported 14 inches of new snow overnight, and 26 inches in the last 24 hours. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center rated the danger as considerable to high. Everyone in the party was experienced and knowledgable in traveling in avalanche terrain. Stifter says they had read the report and there were concerns about the conditions, but that the consensus was that they could manage the hazard if they followed proper protocol. According to Carlsen the temperature rose quickly just before noon, likely adding to the instability.